Can the Internet Save Us After This Pandemic?

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HALF MOON BAY, CA - MARCH 01: Neuroscientist David Eagleman, Baylor College of Medicine, leads a breakout session during The New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016 in Half Moon Bay, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for New York Times)

At first, the Coronavirus was a faraway threat in the city of Wuhan, China. But, in February, the virus started to spread, infecting many people in many countries and creating a global crisis in March. The Covid-19 pandemic is still going; ravaging our health and economy, changing life as we know it. From our workplace to our social interactions, the virus made us rethink the way we approach life. Moreover, it made us reflect on how civilization is getting out of this one. While pandemics are not new to humanity, our current context of hyper globalization and limitless movement of populations makes it a daring challenge for our existence.

Intellectuals started to think about how to approach such a problem during these quarantines. A river of books was published during the summer presenting life during the Pandemic, while others tried to predict the next steps for civilization if normality ever comes back. Many focused on the promotions of science and empirical data to fight the virus; others on the way we organize ourselves socially and globally.

Meanwhile, neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks that there’s an alternative, the internet. His very brief book, The Safety Net (Canongate, 2020), it’s a rendition to the possibilities of the net and a way to escape from the errors of other civilizations before us. As he explains in the introduction of the book: “we may be luckier than most of our predecessors. Almost accidentally, we have developed a technology no one else possessed: a rapid communication network that it’s finds its highest expression on the internet.” For Eagleman, the past sins of other civilizations were that they didn’t have our technological advantages. They did not have the “safety net” to store their previous knowledge; neither did they had the capacity to communicate “across vast landscapes” to distribute resources or tell others about upcoming disasters. Eagleman’s message is very simple: with the internet, with can avert many of the impossibilities of our predecessors and change the way we approach a disaster.

The first half of the pamphlet it’s straight forward, but you get the feeling the Eagleman builds a strawman with his historical subjects to get to the point. It’s true that many of the disasters of the past came from various health crises, viruses, and poor technological advantages. Yet, one could argue that many of those crises were brought on by many of the same interests of our present crisis: rapid global expansion, the economic interest that ignores health risks (like the propagation of viruses), and unbalance relationships of power in different societies.

History only serves Eagleman as the vehicle to contrast primitive ways of living versus the technological progress of the present. In a way, proving that Eagleman did not learn much about the virus. He falls into the same traps that many other intellectuals of his caliber have fallen lately. As Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and others, Eagleman places his hopes on technology, ignoring far bigger problems that not necessarily require innovations from the tech sector.

Take the examples of resources. Eagleman writes that in our current situation: “When populations reach a point of insufficient water, food, energy, medical care, fertile soil, sanitation, or any of the other threads required to hold together the societal fabric, groups class over the available resources. Something the losers are simply the weakest members. Sometimes the conditions are such that the entire civilization dissembles.” What’s Eagleman’s solution to this plethora of problems? He writes:

In the penumbra of carrying capacity issues, the internet appears to have arrived just in time. Thanks to the online world, societal wealth is growing more speedily even while yearly increases in energy demands are slowing. […] Study suggest that a third of the improvements result from the shifts in the economy to sectors that are more energy efficient, such as information technology. The remaining two thirds result from businesses finding more efficient ways to input into output, such as moving from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce.

If we follow that line of thought, Eagleman’s solution doesn’t consider wealth inequality, rapid consumption of resources in less developed countries, or even collusions between governments and businesses to deregulate environmental protections. Instead, his solutions are businesses pursuing eco-friendly practices because it helps their economy. While countries in the Caribbean are experiencing gigantic threats from hurricanes because of the immediate impact of Climate Change, Eagleman is impressed by how “all the important paperwork [in hospitals] has shifted into electronics.” Many will argue that his solutions through the internet, which could develop efficiency on consumptions and less use of papers, go together with the fight against climate change. And yet, is noticeable how the role of leaders and countries, plus the economical and social fabric of the world is shunned in his analysis.

The Safety Net in many aspects presents current opportunities that the internet can bring us. But is regurgitates old talking points that present technology and business’ interests as the saviors of our future. In Eagleman’s world, the Government is too slow and doesn’t go fast enough as the internet. Why go to college or school when there are now lots of online programs and larger access to educational material? Why wait for leaders to do their job when you have investors and philanthropists “working in getting computers into the hands of impoverished children”? Why the need of the mailman coming to your mailbox on the weekdays, when you can have your letters scanned? (In that last one, Eagleman doesn’t hide much and straight-up pulls a study from the Libertarian CATO Institute, to argue what a waste of money the U.S. Postal Service is.) Eagleman’s books manage to present how far we have advanced as a civilization, but how little we know how to handle our current crisis. It’s safe to say that the internet alone, without any real change in our global makeup, is a wasted tool.

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A review of The Safety Net: Surviving Pandemics and Other Disasters by David Eagleman (Canongate, 2020, pp. 89) 

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